How to manage constituency casework
You’ll need a well-trained staff and an understanding of constituents’ suffering to deliver on constituency casework, writes Alison Thewliss MP for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit
Constituency casework is the most important thing you can do as a Member of Parliament. I cannot stress that enough! All the speeches you might make in Parliament as an MP are nothing compared to working to resolve problems for constituents. My Friday surgeries bring all kinds of issues – from relatively simple matters like bin collection, to complex benefits issues and intractable problems with the Home Office. It’s a set time in the week where constituents know where to find you, and an hour-long surgery can often become two hours.
All my staff are based in Glasgow, and everyone in the office takes on casework to some extent. In the past four and a half years, my office has dealt with over 16,000 cases – so you need to get your systems in place quickly for managing these, responding promptly, and making sure complaints go to the right people. As well as casework generated from surgeries, there are regular phone calls, emails, letters, people dropping in for help, and issues raised over social media. Keeping on top of all of this requires careful monitoring and attention to detail. It’s crucial to hire staff who know what they’re doing – benefits and immigration are increasingly complex areas – and to take up training opportunities for staff whenever they arise.
The largest chunk of my casework relates to the Home Office; I have the largest UK visas and immigration caseload in Scotland, and it accounts for over 30% of the cases I deal with. These cases can range from simple things, like a missing Biometric Residence Permit or an unfair refusal of a visitor’s visa for someone’s relative, to spousal visa refusals, and heart-rending stories of people who have been trafficked or are fleeing conflict.
“Being there for constituents keeps me going when other aspects of politics can wear me down”
The Hostile Environment has been much talked about in the media. Until you have someone crying in front of you at a surgery, only because they want to live their life and get on with all the things we take for granted, it doesn’t really hit home. The unfairness of people who could work and contribute but have been told “no” by a faceless bureaucracy. The harshness of a family being separated by thousands of miles because they missed the arbitrary income threshold by a few pounds. The fear someone has of being returned to a country where they are almost certainly going to be persecuted. Every week, I see all this and more. Many times, I do my best to reassure, to hold someone’s hand and tell them that, no matter what the Home Office tells them, I will fight their corner and that they are welcome in Scotland.
In a practical sense, MPs do have a degree of power. As much as I’d love to, I can’t change the rules, but I can apply pressure and ask questions. I work very closely with immigration solicitors in Glasgow to support constituents, to be a line in to ministers and to try to expedite cases where there is a pressing need. This can come in the form of questions in Parliament - there’s never been an oral question session for the Home Office ministers where I don’t have a list of supplementary questions to raise. Other times, debates and petitions can be a mechanism to get matters highlighted. And from some of these, media exposure also arises. I’ve been struck by how quickly the Home Office moves as soon as headlines start appearing. It’s not always an option, as quite understandably many constituents won’t want their personal lives laid out in the media, and for some, it could endanger them or their family. It’s vital to be sensitive to this, and never to speak out on a case unless you have the person’s consent.
There are few things as rewarding in life as managing to resolve a case for a constituent. A woman recently came to thank me in floods of tears saying I’d changed her life, and I was on the verge of tears too. Being there for constituents keeps me going when other aspects of politics can wear me down. It’s not the part of the job that the is often front and centre but, for me, it’s definitely the most significant. I’d advise all new MPs to make effective casework their priority.
Alison Thewliss is SNP MP for Glasgow Central